A democratic alternative to Ofsted

Think of what it takes to provide a good education to hundreds of young people in your charge. Some do it well, others less so. Now…

Imagine a world in which the weak were supported and the strong asked to help out….

…in which effort was respected and shortcomings met with respectful discussion…

…in which you had a say over how your most cherished hopes and practices were to be judged, and in which you could question judgements made of you…

…imagine that you felt safe enough to talk openly and constructively about your shortcomings without fear of punishment…

…and that you looked forward to meeting people from the outside world who could watch what you do with curiosity, interest and a willingness to engage…

…engage with a school that might be, not a world that has been until now.

Imagine that people who hold you accountable were insightful enough to want to learn from your experience…

…and that this learning contributed to a growing ‘bank’ of experience and knowledge…

…which was shared by others who are embarked on similar challenges.

Imagine – that, as a teacher, you were respected as a public intellectual.

To imagine such a world you have to place as much distance as possible between yourself and Ofsted – let’s say, 11,400 miles.

That being the distance from London to Auckland, New Zealand.

The political and educational space occupied by Ofsted in England is occupied in New Zealand by the Education Review Officeor ERO. First off – don’t get me wrong. ERO is flawed – it is human, it faces educational complexities that are no less overwhelming than anywhere else, and it exists in political space, which means it is pulled this way and that. But it leans in an entirely opposite direction to the tendencies of Ofsted. We should be interested.

ERO negotiates its way into a school. The ‘Inspection’ – it’s called a ‘Review’, actually – is based on an agreement with the school on what to look at, where weaknesses are likely to surface, where the school needs support. ‘Inspectors’ (Reviewers – now we can wean ourselves off that menacing term) will often start in a workshop with the school to brainstorm their practices, their experiences, the challenges they face, the particularities of their community, their philosophy and so on. They will develop a plan on how the review should be done, what the Reviewers will report back on. Reviewers will go into classrooms, asking permissions from the teachers, and will take time to watch what is happening, talk to the students and the teachers, learning about that classroom, and using that as a small window on the culture of the school.

ERO Reviewers will, of course, look at test results – though in New Zealand there are no external, public tests given to kids – there are no external exams until the equivalent of ‘A’ Levels at the end of school life. There are tests, though these are diagnostic tests, used by teachers to help them keep a check on individual student progress. But the Review does not use those results to measure the performance either of teachers or of the school. Wouldn’t make sense.

The Review will produce a final report which is brief and summary, but it is not regarded by many as having the significance of the process of the Review and the learnings that took place. ERO will, itself, hold internal discussions about what it learns from its Reviews, they will hold workshops and conferences, invite in interested outsiders and experts. At its best, ERO is what we can think of as a ‘learning organisation’ – it helps schools to learn, and it learns itself as it carries on successive Reviews. It has taken some years for this system to bed down, to be accepted by schools who learned to be suspicious of Inspectors from a previous regime. Where ERO has been accepted it finds a welcome embrace.

Sure – the story is more complex. There have been moves by New Zealand government ministers to nudge ERO closer to the Ofsted, low-trust accountability approach – university academics have helped ERO develop standardised indicators and measures against which to measure all schools and their performances. There is a constant undercurrent of political pressure for school league-tables, to set aside the individuality of schools (and teachers) so as to compare one with another. The Ofsted virus is busily mutating to adapt to that environment and to invade it – but so far it has been held at bay. Educationally, the model is robust; politically, it is ever fragile.

There are alternatives to Ofsted, and these come from a different moral and ethical place – one that is respectful of educators, based on mutual trust, which recognises the complexity of schooling and the impossibility of nailing down the ‘jelly-fish’ of educational quality – an impossibility exposed by the country’s resistance to give way to standardised tests and their distortions. ERO ethics are only viable in a world in which people can be held accountable only for that for which they are responsible (in England, teachers and schools are held accountable for policies and practices forced on them by others).

At best, schools look forward to an ERO Review as a learning opportunity, a fresh pair of eyes, as an opportunity to feed back to those who set education policies. Ministers may well be frustrated that they are refused an answer as to which school is ‘better’ than another, which school is ‘succeeding’ and which ‘failing’. Such measures and summary judgements are not made by ERO. But those ministers have something else, a far less opaque window on schooling and school quality than is available to ministers in the UK.




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